Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey this time out venturing to Herts to witness a keenly-contest derby. 

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

The distraction of seeing an open KFC considering the current great chicken drought of 2018, is a welcome one. I was really late picking up Tom from Waltham Cross station, almost half an hour. He was “cold” and it was “windy” while he waited. Such was his displeasure at my bad time keeping, blame the M25, he greeted me with a curtain moving side to side clenched fist hand gesture, that was a little bit rude.

P1010303Tom is quite right to be “suspicious” about what is in KFC’s popcorn chicken, considering they have been telling everyone they can’t get any of the main ingredient, but are still able to sell this one product, hmmmmmmm.

Finding the entrance to Theobalds Lane is not a straightforward one, a hard left off a hectic dual carriageway if you happen to be coming at it from the right direction. If like us, you’re coming at it from the wrong way, you watch where you want to be, go flying by. Meaning you have to drive up the road, turn around, and drive back the way you just came, but now on the right side of the road.

It certainly seems to be a running theme, maybe it’s a money thing, but the non league car parks we’ve visited as of late, have been treacherous. Dark and foreboding, they take a brave Indiana Jones type like me to conquer and find somewhere to park.

Cheshunt FC’s (CFC) home which is also the home of the Tottenham Ladies team, you know I love to get in at least one Spurs reference, simply to spite Tom, at least once an outing, currently only has half the lights on, and there is little to no signs of life. One of the small covered terraces behind one goal is ratting in the wind. On the far side of the pitch there looks to be a disused and almost derelict looking stand. Covered in cones and red tape, with a few of its seats seemingly ripped out, the brutalist, yes my second reference to the modernist architectural movement of the early 20th century in as many weeks, all reinforced concrete and angular, is out of action.

There is some noise, coming from the small building, set a fair way back from the pitch, next to it a long black wall, with “We Are Cheshunt. One Community. One Club” written across it sandwiched between two of the clubs crests. One light is on in what I assume is the changing room, seeping out from behind the frosted glass is a bit of The Temptations, then some Edwin Star “war what is good for?’’. I can just about make out the glasses wearing, whisker adorned sight of the ever so slightly walrus/Charles Bronson looking figure of CFC’s manager.

A man we last saw in the final days of Billericay Town normalcy, in the last few days before the Tamplin revolution. Standing outside what was then a lion free home changing room, giving off no sign he was about to be overthrown in a non league revolution, by the fake tanned one.

The very, very tall referee and his assistants arrive not long after us. I watch them do their quick walk of the pitch, “all is well” he says to one of the ground staff. I realise towards the end of his inspection that it’s not the 3G surface I was sure it was, but grass. Our intended match today had been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch, and having convinced myself the pitch here was artificial, thought I’d found a banker. However, the synthetic surface is part of the greater complex and is not what CFC play on.

20180220_182123That would’ve been embarrassing.

“Glad we ain’t got a game next week” explains a dour CFC official. With the wind even stronger here than it had been at the station, and almost nothing on all four sides of the ground to stop it, its almost non stop and biting. He carries on, adding that its only going to get colder, baltic air from “bloody Russia” means it’s going to get to “minus temperatures” next week. Such is the near constant breeze, I’m getting a bit of headache as it whips across my sizable forehead. So I plunge in my bag for my olive green hat, putting it on regardless of how daft it makes me look.

Both sets of players heading out for the warm up look desperately unimpressed that they are having to do so. Not that the pitch is any kind of state at all, but wanting to make sure it’s in the best possible nick for the match, both teams have been asked to warm up elsewhere, behind the long black wall, through a door no one seems to know is there. With no visible handle, it’s like a non league priest hole.

Tom has vanished, he’s not photographing the players, they’ve all just trapped back from the muddy back and beyond, to do their star jumps on the main pitch and he wasn’t behind them complaining about mud on his trainers. When I call him he tells me he is in the clubhouse, a very generic one at that he explains, nothing to distinguish it from being one particular clubs or another. Nothing on the walls, no faded old team photos or tatty memorabilia, there is though a man selling signed Spurs pics 45 a pop.

There has been a fair old bit of coming and going in recent weeks at CFC, sitting just one spot off the bottom of the table, the new manager has been seen to quickly rejuvenate the squad. “Only recognise four of the faces” explains one of the stewards, there have been lots of “big changes”. They beat table topping Bowers & Pitsea in their previous game, but the key thing is “can they be consistent?”.

Among the reshuffle, CFC’s have had a bit of coup for a club at this level, they according to the same steward they have signed a “Champions League winner” an “ex Mali international” who won the much coveted European prize with “Real Madrid”. I don’t think he’s pulling my leg, I might be wrong, perhaps the fella fancies having a joke at my expense, but I probe a little further.

Annoyingly he can’t remember the player in questions name. I’m desperate to know but he tells me “he’s not even seen his name of the back of a shirt” yet the decorated new arrival has already “played one game” then “shot his knees poor lad” so I don’t think we’ll be seeing him tonight.

With CFC’s visitors Waltham Abbey FC (WA) being from a mere three miles up the road, tonight is one of those occasions. WA are hovering around mid table, but league position and who you beat in your last match count for little, when local pride is at stake.

“They will battle” explains the steward, it’s a “derby” after all. I’m not wholly convinced by his laughter that follows. It’s more nervous than confident.

IMG_20180220_181808It’s not so much a walk out onto the pitch for the players, who appear from two separate doors, one at each end of the compact changing rooms. There is no tunnel, it’s more of a general space to mingle, the black tarmac making it look like a car park without the markings, more than anything else. In the dimly lit area the teams both form makeshift lines, before being led out by the referee.

A single CFC fan sings “amber army, amber army” louder than the whisper quiet PA. Someone has
turned him up a little when it comes to explaining the relevance of the pitch side presentation. Two CFC players have recently notched up one hundred appearances for the club, and are being given a keepsake by the all time record appearance holder. Following a quick handshake and a picture, they are soon jogging back to their half to start.

“Enjoy the game” says the voice over the PA, who is now at his loudest, this time he is not being muffled by the few fans making some noise as the match gets underway, “come on Cheshunt”.

The most sensible of people here are out of the wind and in the comfort of the main stand on the halfway line, there are a few people dotted about pitch side, but it’s those in the stand, who get the best view, well better than us, it’s right down the opposite end of the pitch, of the opening CFC goal on five minutes.

CFC are rampant, “robbed him” says Tom, when a home player hustles the WA player off the ball, dispossessing him, and initiating the attack. His shot unfortunately is straight at the keeper, but it shows CFC’s intent, they are taking no prisoners.

“He’s gotta go ref” screams a CFC fan following the appeal of the players and the crowd. There is no red card, but the man in charge has awarded a penalty. Two ahead after seventeen minutes, WA look a little shell shocked and Tom thinks they’re lucky to have all their players still on the pitch, “thought he would send him off”.

With the referee taking centre stage for a moment, it has not bypassed Tom that he is a “big ref”. Not big in girth, but height, “reminds me of the headmaster from the Inbetweeners”.

One person not in need of any volume increase, he could do all the pre and post match announcements without the aid of a microphone, in fact a bit of volume control would not got a miss, is the all purple CFC keeper, who has not stopped barking orders since the start. One of those very vocal and communicative keepers, the kind of which give an almost constant commentary at the top of their voices for the full hour and a half. “4, 4, 4” he shouts, no idea what it means, I guess someone does. “He’s gonna have no voice left” says Tom, concerned for the man’s welfare.

Twenty two minutes gone and the home team have officially done a number on WA. The third of their quick fire goals, is the best of the bunch, an impertinent back heel, sees the player in the box slide the ball past the keeper.

Although they find themselves three behind, WA still have a bit of belief, despite so many of their heads noticeably dropping as they prepare to restart for the third time. They certainly have plenty of pace and a “great save” as someone in the stand describes it, from the CFC keeper, prevents them getting back in the match. CFC have another shout for a penalty, for a handball, but the referee in a very head masterly way shouts “no way”.

After the initial CFC onslaught, the game is a little more balanced now, ebbing from end to end, rather than the early one way traffic. The match is really turning into an engrossing one. Played at a high tempo, we bare witness to plenty of strong tackles, real blood and thunder stuff, real derby day stuff.

It could even be said WA are the better side since CFC’S third, the home team reduced to the occasional counterattack. Relying a lot on their number 9 to do all the running. Sturdy, maybe even bulky, he is in fact “a lot faster than he looks like he should be” says Tom.

“Come on the ambers” shouts one fan, his team having notably taken their foot off the gas. The incident of the hand ball, that was at least five minutes ago now, is still playing on the minds of a couple of players, who at any opportunity start nagging the linesman about it, whose rhythmic clicking heels as he runs the line in front of us is hypnotic.

Ten to go, WA send a ball right across the CFC box, but there are no takers. Tom has a playing football at school flashback when the stinging echo of a player stopping a shot at close range rings out, faux leather on bare cold flesh, “oh I bet that hurt”.

It’s a WA siege as the half creeps towards the end, their forward looks a dead cert to score, but somehow puts it wide “how did he miss that?” gasps Tom. A late corner for WA sees them go close again, with the chances they have had, they could have easily dragged the game back to 3 – 3 had they just been a bit more clinical. A back post attempt with a knee, almost creeps in under the bar, but not quite. “Cheeky, cheeky” says Tom going a bit ‘Carry On’.

Other than the dilapidated concrete stand, as I’ve mentioned there is little to feast ones eyes on here, it’s not even totally apparent there is a clubhouse. It is I’m told by Tom one of the nondescript white buildings scattered about, but you wouldn’t know from the outside.

Tom has a special power, finding food at football. This great gift is tested to the max tonight, I can’t see where he can possibly be getting his food from, and hes “really hungry” he only had a “small lunch”, until he pipes up. “I see a burger van”, he reports. Pointing off in the distance, “you see those two white lights?”, he has noticed the faintest of glimmers coming from its side and he’s right you know, God knows how he saw that, but he’s right.

CFC’s number 20 is a unit, a tank, a beast. Not in a fat way either, but in a six chicken breast for dinner, hand crushing kind of way. When he encounters a WA player running for the same ball as him, who is inconveniently in his way, he gives the much smaller player what he thinks is a gentle shove, but multiply that by his great mass, and the WA defender is sent flying, quite literally flying and a foul is given against him.

He looks distraught, the gentle giant meant no harm, Tom is appalled at his treatment, “punished for being strong” he shrieks. “He’s just a big boy” his defence of the forward continues. It’s not the first time CFC have “outmuscled” WA as Tom puts it, in his eyes they just “want it more” which is reflected in the score.

DSC_0025WA have a late flurry of chances, all but confining the home side to their own half. Three cracks at making a dent in the scoreline. After some quick feet on the edge of the box a goal bound shot is blocked. Two players get in each others way jumping for a header but it still “nearly goes in” states Tom, the keeper having to get down low sharpish to stop it, and then another header is just wide, but no joy for the team in blue and white.

“Brilliant first half” says a jovial CFC supporter. The PA is now overly loud, someones been fiddling with their levels during the game. He cheerfully confirms how it stands at the break, leaving an awkward pause between the home and away score, like he feels he’s somehow gloating, eventually letting out a short sharp “0”.

Tom returns from beyond the picnic tables, adjacent to the caged child’s size five a side pitch, while some very, very quiet Stereophonics play. He had asked me if I wanted anything, when I said no, he double checks, “you sure?” knowing full well I’ll end up pinching a chip, I decline again, so he asks the same question again, “you sure?”. Just like I do with my son, when he tells me he doesn’t need the loo, and I know fair well he does.

The presence of the Welsh four piece is a pleasant change to the usual “pop shit” as Tom puts it. A bit of Oasis follows, but what’s next is hands down the single greatest ever football song of all time, World in Motion.

What else does one need than John Barnes rapping while you enjoy your “nice” if not overly salty chips, Tom admits he “struggled with the shaker”.

Now in the main stand, Tom with one hand full of chips, the other with a burger, all balanced on his knees, around us an appraisal of the first forty five takes place, “since we got the third we’ve not really done anything” says one man, those around him all nod and agree. I’m not sure why, but one of the men the opposite side of me to Tom, has just produced a Nokia phone, from the era of when smaller was better, from his pocket, set it to stop watch and pressed GO on the whistle of the referee.

“Our turn now” says the WA fan forcefully in a large Tom Baker style green and white striped scarf. Three minutes into the new half and the visitors have been awarded a penalty. “Get the ball, get the ball” says a teammate of the scorer, no celebration, no time to waste, they run back to the centre circle. I think it’s fair to say it’s the least WA deserve.

There are some peculiar noises emanating from Tom, his last belch was of near Mr Creosote proportions. “I ate that well too quick” he says, he does have the habit of somewhat inhaling his food. Opening up a can of Dr Pepper to add to whatever is going on inside him, is not going to help.

There is a momentary flare up, both teams squaring up, following what Tom thought was a “studs up” challenge, but “judging by the punishment” the referee can’t have thought it was that bad.

“Fucking liven up” says the man in goal for CFC who has just pulled off the most remarkable of saves, this was Pele Vs Banks sort of stuff. A point blank range toe poke that somehow, only he knows how he got down to it, and was able to turn wide. Tom reckons that some “goal line technology” is in order, he says it “looked over the line to me”, but I reckon he has just pulled off an absolute game changer of a save.

With CFC now well and truly on the ropes, different players plead for teammates to “settle down” and while another points out quite rightly that they’ve “not started this half yet” it was a save that may well have prevented a full blown comeback.

I know for some it’s quite an unpleasant smell, my Dad wasn’t a fan, as it seeped from under the bottom of my door, stinking up the whole house, but the sickly, sweet smell of skunk is one I adore. Not that I touch that kind of stuff anymore, I’m a respectable adult with two kids, but someone close by most definitely does, and its intoxicating.

DSC_0151“Come on Cheshunt” murmurs a very softly spoken voice. If he had maybe spoken up a bit, his team might have heard him, but I don’t think they have, and that little extra bit of conviction it may have brought is missing when they defend a WA free kick on sixty five minutes. The team in the glorious blue and white hoops, that is on the arms and body, not very common I think, Tom saying they look like a blue “zebra” have just pulled back a second with a “bullet header” as my learned friend puts it.

“Get the ball. Come on”. Once again no WA celebration, the CFC keeper is still picking himself up, nothing he could have done about that one, as the WA players have already scooped up the ball and are heading back to their half. They just look so dangerous every time they attack.

What a burp from Tom, but I think he feels a lot better now at least, he’s been very quiet since the restart, “needed to do that for the last ten minutes”.

“Come on let’s liven up” pleads a CFC player, and for a moment it looks like one player at least has taken inspiration from his words and goes on the most spellbinding solo run, that looks like it’s going to go on forever, only for his attempt on goal to get blocked. I almost wish the defender had let it in, recognising for the greater good it would have been the perfect end to an excellent effort. Their attacks are few and far between, but at least they are starting to look a lot less composed and a little less rattled then they have.

Just shy of ten minutes to go, and CFC grab the goal they have so desperately needed. It might just be enough to settle the nerves of the players, who have been very wobbly and owe a lot to their keeper.

“Well played ambers” shouts a fan, as the tide shifts one last time, the remainder of the match, its all the home side. There is a slight moment of madness when they almost scored a comical own goal, worthy of a hummed rendition of the circus tune, common on occasions like this, but other than that the ball is only going one way. At one point the WA keeper is forced into a very fine save with his nuts.

I had had my suspicions, but being so close, it all happened so quickly, I wasn’t sure, however one nearby home fan confirms when talking to a friend that WA’s second was an “own goal”. Into extra time, the wind now blowing its hardest, some home supporters have seen enough and start to head home, not walking at full pace though, slow enough so they can still half watch the match so as to not miss anything.

“Thought this would be interesting” says one to another, “four goals in a game what’s going on?”, he replies. The same steward from earlier is a bit bemused people are going, but is satisfied that they at least go their “money’s worth” tonight.

A late CFC attack sees one player bearing down on goal, he strikes the ball and as he does a fan cries out “boom” hoping he has timed his outburst perfectly with the fifth goal, but the shot is speculative at best and is frankly woeful.

The “blue zebra” looking players according to Tom, are a bit of a sorry sight as they go through a lacklustre warm down, before trudging off. The CFC team stand in a loose huddle, their coaches I’m sure highlighting plenty of positives to be taken from tonight as well as plenty of negatives, until that fourth goal, it really did look like they were going to throw their lead away.

IMG_20180220_214247When they eventually walk off, a few take the time to high five and chat with the fans who have waited to clap them off, the players making sure to recognise their supporters, walking the sporadic line of them on their way into the warm.

With February almost at an end I can only hope that this may be one of the last cold ones, I’m fed up of having to spend ten minutes in the car warming my hands up and watching Tom hop around putting on thermal socks, as the same steward who I talked earlier said, “roll on summer”.

Its unlikely, but there is a small chance that one of the CFC fans here tonight, happens to know or even work with a WA supporter, and I hope for their sake they do, because half the fun of a derby day win is having someone to bombard with crowing txt’s or whose desk to loiter around, waiting for a chance encounter. Whatever level it may be, a win over your rivals, is a win. The derby day glory is all CFC’s tonight, but just, the score line not quite reflecting how close they were to blowing it.

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